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Lecture award pays tribute to ASU’s Denhardt

April 14, 2008

Most villains don’t really know they’re evil.

It’s not always their intentional greed or cruelty that causes harm, but their failure to see the moral issues lying just below the surface of their plans.

That idea is at least as old as Aristotle, but today Robert Denhardt is using it to encourage modern leaders to keep ethical concerns in clear focus when making decisions that affect our lives.

The director of the School of Public Affairs at ASU’s College of Public Programs discussed these issues when he received the Donald C. Stone Lecturer Award from the American Society for Public Administration at the group’s national conference in Dallas.

The award pays tribute to people who have contributed outstanding services to the public administration society.

He debuted a lecture, “The Art of Moral Leadership,” at the conference.

“The world of those who lead at whatever level is inherently one in which they are living ‘on the edge’ – the edge of the present as it falls into the future,” Denhardt says. “That’s where values abound.”

Denhardt poses many moral questions that also serve as foundations for several leadership and ethics courses in the School of Public Affairs.

Among them: How can leaders bring the same creativity to addressing moral questions that they bring to facing concerns of cost, performance and results? How can someone be a creative leader while also ensuring that creativity isn’t used to devise faulty justifications for their actions?

A leader provides assurance by letting followers know they’re “doing the right thing” and relieves the sense of concern they might feel in moving away from their comfort zones, Denhardt says.

“But what’s interesting is that doing so requires the leader to assume a certain responsibility … to make sure the process of moving forward is undertaken with care and sensitivity,” he says.

Denhardt emphasizes that leaders must maintain the integrity of a group’s creative process, where everyone can freely express their views and feel that their input is fully entertained by the leader.

Otherwise, “the leader may be tempted not only to rule with excessive power, but to make decisions based on his or her personal interests rather than the group,” Denhardt says. “And the leader may be tempted to lie to followers to protect the organization, or at least ‘spin’ the truth to conceal what is actually happening.”

Denhardt is Regents’ Professor and Lincoln Professor of Leadership and Ethics at ASU. He has published 19 books about topics such as public service, revitalizing public policy and managing human behavior.

The lecture also expanded on points from his book, “The Dance of Leadership,” which draws on parallels between leaders and artists such as musicians and dancers.

“Connecting with the emotions is the work of art and, for this reason, we think leadership, whether in small groups, organizations, or even entire societies, is an art rather than a science,” he says.

The lecture likely will be published in Public Administration Review, a journal that focuses on public administration research, theory and practice.

“Artistic leadership connects with us emotionally in a way that energizes and causes us to act,” Denhardt says. “But we must also be attentive to the moral purpose of leadership, to lift up both the leader and the led, to move them both toward the greater good.”

Corey Schubert,
(602) 496-0406
College of Public Programs